Maintaining social connections during and post pandemic is good for your health

Part I of a series

MANITOULIN – While COVID-19 measures of self-isolation and physical distancing have reduced our overall risk for contracting the virus, limited social connection with others during the pandemic has led to increased feelings of loneliness and anxiety for many, and may be particularly difficult for those who live alone and have limited contact with family, friends and co-workers given the uncertainties and added stressors in our current realities.

More of us were living alone before COVID-19. In March 2019, Statistics Canada released a study on living alone in Canada which found that for the first time, one person households had become the most common type of household in Canada with roughly four million Canadians living alone in 2016, or 28 percent of all households. There are links between living alone and indicators of well-being, such as life satisfaction and self-rated health. Those who lived alone reported lower levels of self-rated health, mental health and satisfaction with life overall than did people who lived with others. 

Family relationships, social networks and socioeconomic characteristics were not rated in this study, however, a 2019 Angus Reid Institute poll conducted in partnership with Cardus explored the quality and quantity of human connection within Canadian lives. The poll compared the indexes of loneliness and social isolation and found that 62 percent of Canadians said they would like to spend more time with family and friends while only 14 percent described their social lives as very good. A full 23 percent of Canadians were both lonely and isolated while another 10 percent were lonely but not isolated. People with lower income levels, less education and who are visible minorities were more likely to be very lonely and very isolated; those who are married were more likely to feel connected, suggesting that living with a partner or family member offers a key source of comfort and support.

These findings make sense. Humans are social creatures with an inherent need for belonging and acceptance. There is evidence that the hormone oxytocin, which plays a role in bonding and social behaviours, is released when people interact socially. Isolation and loneliness can have detrimental affects on both physical and mental health, with research linking both of these factors to higher risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, compromised immune system, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline. 

Kate Walker-Corbiere, crisis intake worker for Health Sciences North’s Mental Health and Addictions outreach site on Manitoulin Island, has seen an increase in anxiety with people having more difficulty in managing their emotions. “They’re feeling really overwhelmed and emotional,” she said. “It could be anxious emotions or it could be that sense of loneliness or disconnect. People are missing seeing their children or grandchildren and are experiencing difficulty with the adjustment to social isolation.”

While the walk-in clinic, usually located on the second floor of Manitoulin Health Centre’s Little Current site, is not open to in-person visits during COVID-19, the services are still available by telephone or teleconference. Anybody who is experiencing a mental health or addiction crisis, or who just needs to talk to someone, can call Ms. Walker-Corbiere.

While many families now find themselves with the time and space to share meals and do family strengthening and fun activities that might not have happened prior to COVID-19 (board games and puzzles are selling out across the Island), other people are deeply missing the lack of access to family members and other social connections. Physical isolation may be the hardest part of the pandemic measures, suggests Ms. Walker-Corbiere. She recommends people redefine or build a regular type of schedule to replace those ways they used to connect on a regular basis. This could be setting a time to Skype or to Facetime with family members. It could be texting more, emailing more or just reaching out more. “When we’re feeling sad or lost that’s an indicator that we need to connect. Ask yourself, ‘who can I connect to?’ Your call can help somebody too. When you’re reaching out you’re also validating them. It’s a win-win.”

She also encourages people to call someone rather than using texts or email. Hearing a voice is an extra connection, she said, and the second-best thing to seeing someone in person is to hear their voice or see them on Facetime. 

She urges professionals, friends or even neighbours that are aware of these situations to reach out. “Maybe they can drive by and have a talk, maintaining that six-foot distance. Make the time to connect and ask someone how they’re doing. It really is the time to be more generous with ourselves and more generous with our community.”

We all have resources we can share, whether it’s time or knowledge or cooking a meal, said Ms. Walker-Corbiere. There are many ways to reach out and let others know they are valued. Spending time listening to people, letting them construct their thoughts validates their emotions. People will feel a difference when they are given attention, and anyone can give attention. “We can make things and mail them, almost like we’re going back in time a little; acts of kindness are so huge right now.”

“It can be a simple thing like having tea or calling a friend. Call that person who has always helped you feel better in the past. Encourage people to use their natural supports. It’s hard to be vulnerable but everybody needs somebody to hear them at some point. Just listen and validate how they’re feeling,” she said.

Everyone needs to nurture themselves a little right now. It could be walking or having a relaxing bath but people know what works for them. More self-nurturing will reduce anxiety, she said, and when people do things that help them stay mentally strong they experience an increased sense of safety. 

“Remind people who feel stuck to recognize that it’s very normal to go through periods of increased anxiety right now, periods of shutdown, periods of denial or disbelief, to be hypervigilant or very irritable,” Ms. Walker-Corbiere said. “Those types of responses are very normal and sometimes people need to accept that today’s not a great day. Be kind to yourself.”

“We need to focus on the moment. Sometimes the strategy is to set a timer for 10 minutes and commit to focus on doing something for 10 minutes. Ten minutes is manageable,” she continued.

Going for a walk or spending time in nature helps; make sure to connect with others by smiling and saying hello when you pass. Use technology to connect with others and if you are feeling lonely, tell someone. Remember, too, that helping others will make you feel connected and less alone.

As pandemic restrictions are loosened, businesses reopen and larger gatherings are allowed, we need to continue to reach out to those who remain isolated or who may continue to experience feelings of loneliness. We can build on the compassion and kindness people have shown during this pandemic by continuing to listen and to engage with others in our extended communities. 

Connect with Ms. Walker-Corbiere by calling 705-368-0756 ext. 222 between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday. After hours or on weekends, call the crisis line in Sudbury at 1-877-841-1101. 

The Warm Line is a support line manned by people who have lived experience with mental health or addictions, Ms. Walker-Corbiere said. Sometimes just talking to a kind person with a different perspective can be helpful for people who feel lonely and are disconnected from family and friends. The Warm Line is available seven days a week from 6 pm until 12 am at 1-866-856-9276.